Myths and stories about faeries do not have a single origin, but are rather a collection of folk tales from disparate sources. Various folk theories about the origins of faeries include casting them as either demoted angels, or demons with in Christian tradition; as minor Pagan deities; as spirits of the dead, as precursors to humans; or as elementals.
The label of ‘faerie’ has at times applied only to specific magikal creatures with human appearance, small stature, magical powers, and a penchant for trickery. At other times it has been used to describe any magical creature, such as goblins and gnomes.
In their book Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies, 500AD to the Present by Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook, they suggest that faeries are not tutu-clad beings of folklore, but mischievous bed-hopping folk living in a dangerous parallel world. One tales is of a Cumbrian miner who was blessed by the faeries and able to find great mineral wealth. Until he shared his good fortune with others, angering the faeries and dying mysteriously not long after. Young quotes a register of deaths from parish records in the village of Lamplugh from the early 18th century, which lists four deaths as “frightened to death by fairies”. Also, one was led into a pond by Will o’ Wisp, and another died in a duel using “frying pan and pitchforks”.
Fairy Rock on the coast at Saltom, near Whitehaven. The rock is associated with the tale of a faerie queen who falls in love with a human. The faeries that were human-sized and wore white robes and danced in the moonlight and were known to invite handsome young men to their dances. According to a 17th-century legend, one such man pledged everlasting devotion to the Queen of the faeries, promising to spend half his time in her world. He must only come when the moon was full, that she would guide him to the cove. But one evening he tried to visit when there was no full moon, a deep moan came from the sea and a terrible storm arose. He was killed by the oncoming waves, and it is said that such a voice can still be heard as a storm approaches. The last faerie seen on Fairy Rock was reportedly in the form of a calf flying across the sea. The witness exclaimed, “G-d! weel loppen, cofe!”, and as the faerie reached him, it disappeared.
Keswick’s Fairy Postman
The legend of a fairy postman who visited the Earl of Derwent Water by Thomas Carrick in his 1903 book The Border Land. He talks about the belief in fairies along the Borders: “They were neither wholly human, nor divine, nor demoniacal, but a kind of medley of all three – a strange mixture of body and spirit – and they could assume either, or both, as the case demanded or necessity arose. They were called by particular names, according to the place where they dwelt, the work they did, or the aspect they assumed.” He continues: “When the last Earl of Derwentwater was undecided as to whether or not he should join the standard of the rebellion, he was alone on the banks of the river, in great distress of mind, cogitating what to do. As he was leaning against a tree, a phantom-like person delivered to him a letter, and mysteriously vanished. That letter decided him, and sealed his doom. That visitant is called the Fairy Postman to this day.”
A trader from Bewcastle, returning home one evening was dragged off his horse by a group of faeries, and would most dertainly have been lost through the doorway of a faerie hill if he had not had a page from the Bible in his pocket.
The village of Ravenglass is home to Cumbria’s “faery king” and Celtic god, King Eveling. He lives in the ruins of the Roman settlement of Glanoventa.
Castle Rock of Triermain
Played host to King Arthur and a group of faeries. Gyneth, Arthur’s daughter by the faerie Guendolen was sent into an enchanted sleep by Merlin as punishment for her cruelty.
Some children were digging on the hill when they uncovered a tiny house with a slate roof. When they returned to the same spot a few hours later, the house had disappeared. A few days later the children’s father was walking his dog on the hill, and he spotted two small people dressed in green, on seeing the man and his dog, they stepped into the ground, and disappeared.
The castle was built by a local King to imprison his daughter after a faerie foretold of the girl’s death by drowning. Years later, and one evening as she climbed through a window to elope with her lover, she slipped and fell into a water butt, and drowned.
The ‘last fairies in Cumbria’
In 1850, Jack Wilson witnessed a company of faeries dancing on Sandwick Rigg, a grassy hill overlooking the village of Sandwick. Mr Wilson recounted the tale many times during his life: the faeries were in great celebration, eating and drinking, but when they spotted Jack Wilson, they ran up a ladder into a cloud, never to be seen again. He always concluded the tale with: “yance gane, ae gane, and niver saw mair o’ them”.
I always find it fascinating retelling this tale on social media, some ufologists are convinced this is a tale of alien encounter.
From Beetham village a path climbs to Beetham fell and leads to the ‘Fairy Steps’. The second of two flights of stone steps, where the narrow passage squeezes between two sheer rock faces via a flight of natural stone stairs is so named because of legend – if you climb or descend the steps without touching the limestone sides of the narrow gully, faeries will grant you a wish. But only someone whose stature matches that of a faerie stands any chance of accomplishing this impossible feat, as in places the cleft is as narrow as 30cm at shoulder height. Not an easy achievement for someone of my 6’ 4” stature.
Kready, L. 1916 A Study of Fairy Tales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company
Barnett, D. 2017 Beyond Disney: Why the bloodcurdling fairies of old were to be seriously feared
Cumberland and Westmorland Herald, 2006 Ullswater fairies, Orton ghost and Penrith giant
The faery folklorist, 2009 Cumbria – Castle Howe
Cleaver, A. 2015. Letters from the Lake District – Keswick’s Fairy Postman
Rowling, M. 1976. The Folklore of the Lake District